Anyone who's ever loved a pet like a member of the family knows that the grief when that dog, cat or other furry friend dies can be devastating.
But too often, finding others who truly understand and support that sense of loss can be challenging.
Michelle Crossley, a mental health counselor, and Colleen Rolland, a pet loss grief specialist, have each experienced deep bereavement after losing a much-loved pet.
They also see value in helping others whose animal friend has died.
Together, they've written a paper on the issue, published Nov. 25 in Human-Animal Interactions.
Rolland is a pet loss grief specialist for the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) and has a small private practice in Ontario, Canada. She said her own loss of a beloved Golden Retriever left her “in a puddle on the floor.”
It also motivated her to help others through their grief, which is how she came to be the president of APLB about three years ago.
“I would love for the human-animal bond and the love that people feel for their animals to become more accepted by society as a whole,” Rolland said about her hopes for this paper.
“For that segment of the population that just don't 'get it,' I would love for them to nod their head and go, ‘OK. It is a big deal for those people.' And accept it and take away the stigma that is attached to pet loss and the grief that somebody feels over the death of their pet,” she explained.
As a pet loss grief specialist, Rolland is trained specifically in the extreme grief over the loss of a pet, but when that loss triggers feelings about childhood grief or other traumas, she and others like her refer those individuals to a trained mental health specialist.
One of the reasons for the paper was an awareness that not all mental health specialists understand the depth of the human-animal bond, and so are not able to provide what feels like an emotionally safe environment for someone experiencing that grief, Rolland said.
“That person just turns even more inward and the grief and the suffering just continues to go on,” she added.
Pet loss is just one type of loss that is not as widely acknowledged or given attention by society, according to the study authors. Among the others are death by suicide or from AIDS and pregnancy loss/miscarriage.
Grief may become more complicated when it's 'disenfranchised,' Rolland said.
A disenfranchised grief is one that is important to the individual, but which is unacknowledged as important by society and not needing the same social support, the report noted.
Giving a voice to someone experiencing this type of grief is one way that counselors can help their clients through this loss, said Crossley, who has a private counseling practice. She also works as an assistant professor at Rhode Island College in Providence.
According to 2018 statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, 57% of U.S. households have a pet. About 80% of those surveyed consider those pets to be family members and 17% consider them companions.
Twenty-three million American households added a dog or cat to their households during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And people may have spent more time with their pets during the pandemic.
Knowing all this also means more people are likely to ultimately experience pet loss, the authors pointed out.
Society in general struggles with talking about death and grief, Crossley said.
Some of what makes someone more bonded to animals is how they were raised with them, she theorized.
Some folks have a mentality that pets are easily replaced, whereas people are not. That may lead those with strong pet bonds to not talk about their relationships with their pets and their feelings of loss because they may feel they'll be made fun of, Crossley said.
“I actually hope that providers are able to start including companion animals as support systems,” Crossley said. She envisions them "really starting to have the conversation from the get-go of who are your support systems and do you have any companion animals and what role do you see they play in your life, in your mental wellness or in your stress?”
Rolland said counselors may be able to employ different strategies depending on whether the individual is a child who considered the pet a confidante, a widow or widower who saw the pet as their last connection with a loving spouse, or someone with disabilities who relies on the companion animals.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on grief and loss.
SOURCES: Colleen Rolland, MA, pet loss grief specialist and president, Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), Ontario, Canada; Michelle Crossley, PhD, assistant professor, Rhode Island College, and vice president, APLB, Providence, R.I.; Human-Animal Interactions, Nov. 25, 2022